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The future of surge

Can an Airbnb-style platform improve crisis deployment?

WFP trucks convoy delivered food supplies during a relief effort in Somalia
WFP trucks convoy delivering food supplies during a relief effort in Somalia (Cristiano LaRuffa/WFP)

A new initiative called HumanSurge aims to become the Uber or Airbnb of crisis response, but unless it can adapt to the rapidly changing landscape on the ground it is unlikely to solve the “surge” problem.

The race to get the right responders to the right place after a sudden crisis has long been a challenge for humanitarian agencies. 

In line with the recommendations of a baseline 2007 study, aid groups have in recent years improved their ability to “surge”, as the industry calls it, by creating internal rosters, providing organisational support and releasing the necessary funding faster. Organisations able to provide rapid, specialised and detailed services – like ACAPS, MapAction and JIPS – have also sprung up.  

But a new report, published this month by the NGO consortium START Network, argues that despite this progress, surge mechanisms have failed to keep pace with an environment that is constantly changing.

Changing landscape

First of all, people and institutions in-country – from local governments to civil society organisations, as well as diaspora networks – have more capacity than they used to.

“How are agencies going to adapt their model – which for many means sending the maximum number of people, who tend to be white and European – when the capacity is actually in-country or in the region?” asks report author Glenn O’Neil. “The assumption behind surge for many agencies is still the belief that they have to be on the ground – what if that isn’t so?”

In line with a current push towards more localised crisis response, last month, Oxfam America launched a campaign called “No Parachute Needed” in which it called on the US government to invest more in building local capacity to respond to crises.


Billboard of local aid worker
"Humanitarians like Karen don't need to parachute in," reads Oxfam's ad...
Oxfam America
In March 2016, Oxfam America launched a campaign called “No Parachute Needed” in which it called on the US government to invest more in building local capacity to respond to crises by highlighting "local leaders" like Karen Ramirez, a humanitarian worker in El Salvador. ...
Saturday, January 1, 0000
Poster of Salvadoran aid worker Karen Ramirez
Billboard of local aid worker

The private sector is also playing an increasingly important and proactive role, especially as demand grows for new areas of expertise not currently found within the sector, such as digital cash management.

And the work traditionally handled by professional aid workers is increasingly being undertaken by volunteers: untrained and unsupported, but often quicker than big organisations – as seen in the response to refugees in Europe, for example.

“In Greece and in Hungary, whenever we heard about a new group of arrivals, we’d go to the location – and find the volunteers already providing help,” one aid worker from a major NGO told IRIN. “We were as fast as we could, but they were faster.”


In Syria, where the UN trialled the “Level 3” emergency protocol, which is meant to speed up the recruitment of high-level staff, a recent evaluation found delays in deploying people from the L3 pool of humanitarian coordinators (the most senior UN humanitarian official in a crisis) and a lack of availability of people with “adequate experience and qualifications”.

For those of you familiar with the lingo, you may enjoy this:


wizzit wizzit
Everything you wanted to know about the "Level 3" but never dared to ask

To try to address some of the problems with traditional surge mechanisms, a group of former humanitarian workers launched HumanSurge earlier this year.

An independently run online platform, it attempts to bring the Uber and Airbnb approach into humanitarian HR.

“We thought: let’s create a platform where they can search [for a humanitarian professional] in the way we search for a flight or a hotel,” says CEO Loek Peeters. “Most of the rosters that are out there are siloed. They are all organisation or country level based. We can capitalise on the tools for the 21st century in the humanitarian sector and create a single common platform.” (Existing thematic rosters pool pre-approved gender and protection advisers available for UN deployments at short notice, and the UN can deploy pre-trained teams within 12 hours to help governments assess and coordinate in the early days of a crisis. But most rosters do not cut across organisations).

The platform invites humanitarians of any affiliation to register on the database free of charge. Organisations looking to fill gaps in their teams can search the database and recruit candidates they deem suitable, allowing small NGOs that cannot afford to run a roster access to a greater pool of people. The organisations are charged a standard fee and the platform is run as a self-sustaining social enterprise model, not a for-profit business.

The idea, Peeters says, came from his own experiences as an emergency responder.

“I’ve faced these issues in the field – being in incomplete teams where key staff are missing or not able to arrive on time. At the same time, I am on [individual agency] rosters, so I get random emails because the organisation doesn’t know where I am. Why isn’t it possible to show the community at large that I’m available, not just the few NGOs I’ve already worked with? That’s a lost resource in an environment where there is scarcity.”

HumanSurge seems to have struck a chord: more than 1,000 professionals have signed up since the launch at the end of February, and five major organisations – including Care International, Médecins Sans Frontières and Plan International – have subscribed, paying a monthly fee for use of the platform. Peeters says they are in final-stage talks with several others, and are aiming to have 10-15 partners by the end of the year.

Expanding the pool

But while it may be a useful matching service, some question how willing agencies will be to hire staff from a site whose candidates self-register, particularly when they are looking to deploy at speed. 

“There will still be a need to assess candidates, check references and work history, as well as a range of vetting and training that we count on our partners to do,” says Zola Dowell, chief of surge for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. (Peeters points to peer-to-peer verification and linkages with organisations like RedR or the Humanitarian Leadership Academy as potential ways to address this gap down the road).

What’s more, says O’Neil, “the challenge for many organisations is that they are already fishing from the same limited pool. So how can [HumanSurge] extend that? What we’re seeing is the trend of using more local and regionally qualified staff – are they able to tap into that?”

Peeters says the platform is well positioned to adapt to the changing landscape by including local responders, private sector professionals, and volunteers looking to become full-time humanitarians.

“Where is the Pakistani in Pakistan who responded to the floods and earthquake? Who has already worked with NGOs, has had sphere training? All these NGOs fly back in, set up their office, start from zero – the idea would be, you find your national staff on HumanSurge.”

To facilitate this, Humansurge plans to launch French and Spanish language versions later this year, and is looking at other language opportunities. The system is still in testing phase, and Peeters says they are primarily looking for users and organisations who will work with them to improve it.

O’Neil, for one, is not convinced that HumanSurge is the solution to the challenges outlined in the START Network report. But there’s one thing he is sure about: surge systems of the future will need to change.


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